Really, truly for the birds


On a recent weekday morning, Tom and Jo Heindel strode to the top of a hill at the edge of town and held hands, savoring the panoramic views below of elk grazing in alfalfa fields, strips of willows along streams and elm trees glistening with the remnants of rain.

Then Tom, 73, and Jo, 71, got down to business.

“A few dozen scaup, 10 eared grebes, 12 Clark’s grebes, 20 canvasbacks and a Northern harrier gliding low and fast,” Jo said, peering through a spotting scope.

“Got it,” said Tom, transcribing the information on a tally sheet spread across the hood of their aging white mini-pickup truck. “It is 8:50 a.m. and 66 degrees, with 2-mile-per-hour winds from the north under clear blue skies.”


Theirs is a love story that dates to a spring day in 1953 when Tom, 16, asked Jo, 14, out on their first date -- bird watching in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Thus began the ornithological passion that has carried the Heindels through 55 years of marriage and careers as high school science teachers in the United States, Bolivia, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia.

But the most significant and enduring contribution of the relationship -- one Jo likes to call “a menage a trois, with birds being the third party” -- began in 1972 as a plan to produce a little guide to the birds of the Eastern Sierra.

Now the Heindels are nearing completion of what has grown into a 500-page draft manuscript of a comprehensive scientific survey of every species and subspecies ever documented in Inyo County over the last 150 years.

The tentative title: “The Status and Distribution of the Birds of Inyo County Including Death Valley National Park.”

The 200,000-plus entries document species, behavior, date, time, temperature, wind direction -- even the make and power of the binoculars or telescope used by the observers. They also include the first recorded sightings of a particular species, its highest recorded elevation and whether it is a resident, migrant or summer visitor.


The Heindels say their project has cost them tens of thousands of dollars for computer equipment, file cabinets, travel, phone calls, research materials, cameras and scopes -- not to mention time. “If we took minimum pay for all the time we’ve put into it,” Jo said, “we could pay off the federal debt.”

Now, with the book “95% done,” Tom said, ornithologists have been urging them to shop for a publisher.

The Heindels’ book will be among the most ambitious of its kind published in the last 50 years, experts say.

“There are thousands of counties in the United States, yet most states do not have a single county bird book,” said James Van Remsen, a professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. “So I admire the Heindels. In retirement and at their own expense, they are making a rare contribution: a total, all-out description of avifauna in one of the largest and most complex counties of them all.”

In a home office bulging with files, photographs, maps, correspondence, bird books and copies of naturalists’ field notes, Jo sighed: “Our friends are questioning whether we will ever get the darned thing done. We’re wondering too.”

Shaking his head, Tom added: “The most important thing left to do is set a cutoff point for accepting new information, which may be soon.”


Their effort has become the stuff of legend among premier ornithologists, who liken it to the inventory of California life forms compiled a century ago by Joseph Grinnell of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Natural History.

“Tom and Jo are compiling data down to the level of subspecies, which many bird analyses do not do,” said Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “But there is so much variation within species in Inyo County that they have doubled and tripled their workload by investigating birds at that level.”

Avian diversity comes with the territory in Inyo County, a land of striking geographic contrasts where the High Sierra and the Mojave Desert collide. More species of birds have been recorded in Inyo County than in each of 29 states.

Ironically, the workload has all but transformed the Heindels into recluses, leaving them with little time for contact with birds in the field.

They have given up bird-banding efforts at Death Valley National Park, breeding-bird surveys in remote corners of Inyo County and bird-watching trips closer to home. Tom even turned down a recent opportunity to see a wood thrush, which he’d never seen here before, because it would have taken valuable time away from the book. An annual trip to a birding hot spot in Texas, Ohio or Florida is out of the question.

“We’re not writing for today’s bird watchers,” Jo said, leafing through a thick stack of field notes. “We’re creating a window into Inyo County’s bird life for people living 100 years from now.”


Of the 425 species of birds ever seen in Inyo County, Tom has personally identified 408. “I’m a few birds behind Tom,” Jo said.

For all their experience and knowledge, they still get a special kick out of scanning local ponds and fields through matching Questar telescopes.

“There is nothing more exciting than a rare bird,” Jo said. “Your blood starts pumping and you’re skin gets flushed. You’re a mess.”

“I get goose bumps and teary eyes,” Tom said.

That kind of talk has made their modest home in Big Pine, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, a base camp for visiting birders whose first question is: “When is the book coming out?”

Visitors rarely leave before hearing many stories that take on the quality of myth: The time Jo and Tom hacked through Bolivian jungle, then plunged into dense brush on their hands and knees to become the second and third people in the world, respectively, to see a small, secretive forest species known as the rufous-faced antpitta. Or the time 27 birders with no money and no other place to stay dropped in unannounced one winter night and slept on their floor.

“We are thrilled to have them as part of our community,” said Pete Pumphrey, president of Eastern Sierra Audubon. “They have collected all this information that will be valuable for years and years to come on issues from habitat to climate change and have opened lots of eyes to how magical are living things that can fly.”


Jon L. Dunn, co-editor of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, is a close friend who has forwarded his field notes to Tom and Jo since the early 1980s.

“I’ve seen them in action from Death Valley to the High Sierra,” said Dunn, who lives in nearby Round Valley. “So I know that everything that goes into that book is believable.”

In the field, the couple have nurtured roles suited to their gifts.

Tom tends to identify birds by their song. During a recent outing at the outflow of a nearby trout hatchery, he said: “Here in Owens Valley -- marsh wren to the right -- we occasionally -- Virginia rail just ahead in the reeds -- get -- song sparrow behind us -- a foot of snow in winter.”

Jo favors shapes and color variations. As a result, the Heindels are prone to heated debates when looking at the same bird. “Those aren’t streaks, they’re spots!” Jo has been heard to say.

Their infatuation with birds started early in life. Tom was a young boy driving a tractor on the family farm in Pennsylvania when, he recalled, “the images of bright birds -- red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, cardinals, blue jays -- first caught my attention.”

When he was 12, he said, “my father deserted the family and I went to live on the farm of an uncle, who helped me learn the names of those birds.”


At 15, Tom moved with his mother and sister to Los Angeles. Tom was attending Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and Jo was at Culver City High when they met at a Lutheran church event.

They were still in high school when they were married in 1954.

After graduation, Tom served in the Air Force until 1958. Both earned teaching credentials at Cal State Long Beach, then became teachers at Big Pine High School.

Six years later, they began landing teaching jobs in South America and Saudi Arabia, where they explored remote oases that were rest stops for migrating birds.

The Heindels moved back to Big Pine in 1990. They have four children -- a daughter and three sons -- all avid bird watchers.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Tom and Jo peered through binoculars at nearby Klondike Lake, which reflected snow-clad Sierra peaks towering in the background.

Tom noted that it was 4:30 p.m., 82 degrees and 100% clear.

“Bingo!” Jo shouted. “Pacific loon loafing near a common loon. It’s a juvenile.”

Tom smiled and said, “Amazing, Jo. Might be the only one we see all year.”

That night, they compared fields notes in preparation for the tedious work of entering the afternoon’s sightings and vital statistics into computer files reserved for the book.


“There is still so much we don’t know about birds around here,” Tom said to Jo.

“But I’ll never forget the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen. I was 16 at the time. She was 14.”